The Muhammad Ali of Running

By Matt Fitzgerald

Well, I can die now. I spent quality time in the presence of Haile Gebrselassie on Tuesday and Wednesday and was even more impressed by his physical abilities and outsized personality than I had expected to be. I came away from the experience thinking of Geb as the Muhammad Ali of running. He’s not quite the figure that Ali was/is, but he generates a similar type of excitement by combining once-in-a-generation athletic performance with infectious charisma. Such people are so very rare. Much more common are the likes of Tiger Woods, who have the once-in-a-generation performance but just a regular personality. The likes of Ali and Geb are unique in that their athletic performance seems to be fed by the same source as their towering personalities, and that is an overflowing lust for life, which to me is perhaps the most attractive of all personality characteristics.

Geb made his first appearance in the lobby of the Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica Tuesday evening with no entourage. He had come all the way from Ethiopia alone. The still and video camera crews present went nuts as he walked outside surrounded by a mob of starstruck journalists, including me. Geb then led us on a short, slow jog along the beach, which he interrupted halfway through to conduct a brief session of those crazy calisthenics exercises that Ethiopian runners like to do before workouts. Only two people recognized Geb: a German tourist and an Ethiopian-American cab driver who looked to be enjoying the pleasant surprise of his life as he yelled out, “Haile!”

You would expect the greatest runner of all time to look different from everyone else, and up close Geb most certainly did. I was not struck by his diminutiveness, having known already that his stats were 5′3″, 112 lbs. I was struck by how impossibly narrow his waist was, how short his trunk, and how his thigh muscles seemed to bulge against the tights he wore despite their small girth. As we shuffled along at 9:00/mile I tried to match my cadence to his but could not get it that high. His heels never touched the ground the whole way. Geb is a true, literal forefoot striker.

The next day we took a bus to the Home Depot Center and gathered at the track. Geb was now joined by the other big Adidas track and field stars: Allyson Felix, Tyson Gay, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Jeremy Warrner, Christine Ohuruogu, and high jumper Blanka Vlasic. After joining a line-up next to the 6′4″ Vlasic, Geb made a show of standing on his tiptoes and drawing up his shoulders as he stole a glance upward at her head. His audience laughed heartily as the other star athletes stood stone-faced.

Through the morning all of the star athletes demonstrated drills and exercises they do in training. Each did so with the posture and attitude of one fulfilling a contractual obligation–with one exception.

A treadmill had been set up on one edge of the track. As Vlasic demonstrated practice run-ups, Geb began warming up on the treadmill, gradually increasing his pace. By the time we were taken over to him he was running at his world record marathon pace of 4:43 per mile. It was an awesome spectacle to behold. What struck me most was that I could not hear his feet landing on the treadmill, although I stood six feet from him. I am not exaggerating. There was just a slight change in the pitch of the machine’s whirring motor when his foot struck the belt, but the actual impact of the shoe on the belt was totally inaudible. After seeing this, if Geb had asked me if he could run on my chest for a while I would have readily assented, knowing it wouldn’t hurt in the least. The dude is that light on his feet.

Something called a heat camera was trained on Geb as he ran. A video screen showed an image of him with coloring effects that showed how much heat was coming off various parts of his body. The ostensible point of this demonstration was to show off the thermoregulation properties of Geb’s Adidas apparel. As an Adidas rep blathered on and on about this stuff Geb just kept running. Eventually he started jabbing at the treadmill’s control panel. Is he going to slow down? I wondered. No, he was speeding up. Geb’s thighs were now coming up nearly to 90 degrees on each swing-through.

“How fast are you going now?” someone asked. Geb used a hand to create shade over the pace display (it was a hot, sunny morning) and positioned his nose just inches away from it, squinting. “Four thirty-six mile!” he announced with childlike enthusiasm. There were murmers and whistles.

The Adidas rep wrapped up his song and dance and asked Geb if he would like to slow down and step off the treadmill so that he could talk about his shoes, shorts, and singlet. Geb politely refused, saying he could talk as he ran. Moments later he was jabbing at the control panel again, and his pace increased further. He knew what we were really there for, and he was happy–beyond happy–to put on a show.

“How fast now?” someone shouted.

“Four-twenty six!” Geb beamed. His next move was now inevitable. He jabbed his right index finger into the panel repeatedly and his stride opened up wider and wider.

“Four-minute mile!” he shouted with the pride of a motorcycle daredevil taking a bow after leaping over a bunch of school buses. He held the pace for a good solid minute, throwing his arms overhead and pumping his fists in celebration at one point. When at last he stepped off the treadmill, he was given a rapturous ovation.

Then he talked very sincerely about how much he likes his Addidas AdiZero Adios racing flats. Whatever Adidas is paying this peerless ambassador, they are getting their money’s worth.

After lunch I sat down with Geb one-on-one for a 15-minute interview. I will post the full text and a photo tomorrow.

The following is a video about the event at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles:

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